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Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave by Sean Prentiss. 2015. University of New Mexico Press. Reviewed by Robert Brinkmann.
Sean Prentiss’ new book, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave is a modern reflection on one of the important environmental authors of the late 20th century that could only have written by one of his most ardent readers at this particular time in America. I cannot help but think that Oprah would have picked the book for her club if Oprah were somehow engaged with the environmental history of the United States. The book is largely a self-discovery around a quest for finding Abbey’s grave. Unfortunately, these are well tread trails. Most readers fully understand that it is not the destination but the journey. At the same time, readers unfamiliar with Abbey will find the journey informative, if not familiar. Many of us have been on quests for an elusive goal that may or may not be real. We have all tilted at windmills, albeit rarely is the windmill the grave of a famous environmentalist.
I have never been fully comfortable with Edward Abbey. I found his grizzled and grumpy writing fascinating--but I never related to him. To me, he was like many other creative icons of the 20th Century American West, like Ansel Adams and John Huston, who carefully crafted images by leaving out many realities. They celebrated only the most beautiful or natural settings. They typically eschewed cities and suburbs. Of course there is nothing wrong with this viewpoint. I just find it incredibly limiting. I never understood how environmentalists could look in one direction of wilderness with limited concern about the environmental issues impacting large numbers of people in their own neighborhoods.
I think my eye rolling about Abbey and others is the result of academically coming of age in the Anthropocene—although we didn’t call it that back in the 80’s and 90’s when I was in college.
I was trained as a classical geologist. Yet it became very clear to me early on in my studies and fieldwork that the world I was seeing was not the one I was reading about in science books. My fieldwork showed me an earth that was disrupted, polluted, and fundamentally changed. I found those who wrote about wilderness and nature important, but hardly the important voices that the environmental movement needed at the moment. They were looking in the wrong direction. As noted in my review of Women Pioneers of the Louisiana Environmental Movement, a new breed of activists emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s that focused on the heavy impact of industrialization in their communities. The writing of Abbey, to me, seemed a bit elitist and insignificant. While many found him important, I never warmed to him as a major figure.
I also found his work oddly out of step with society. The characters in his novels were hypermasculine and the few female characters highly sexualized. Even in Prentiss’ work the few women he introduces us to are bartenders, research assistants, or wives of interviewees who provide food and drinks. This isn’t that surprising given the nature of Abbey’s personal life and Prentiss’ juxtaposition.
But it is worth exploring the hypermasculinity of Abbey and Prentiss’ book. There is something distinctly manly about Abbey’s writings and Prentiss’ approach to understanding him. Each year, when I attend the annual Geological Society of America meeting, I see hundreds of Abbeys and Prentisses. These are the bearded men who are not comfortable in urban salons. They are much happier in wilderness far from others. They are drawn to the field of geology for that reason. With their beards and dusty boots, they seem awkward at the annual convention amidst others in suits and ties. What draws these men to the wilderness? Many of these geologists, as part of their work, foreshadow development. They are sent to the wilderness to find and assess natural resources for exploitation. Many others study how to protect and preserve wilderness or are on a quest to unravel the mysteries of time that are stored as evidence within the geologic record. Yet everyone knows that the real geologic challenges of the moment, such as water resource management and environmental pollution, are not typically found in the wilderness. The pressing earth science work is in cities and suburbs. Nevertheless, many geologists go far afield. Just like Abbey and Prentiss and other environmental writers. This calling to the wilderness is strong in American literature. It has deep roots put out by Thoreau that extend to the present.
Of course, to many, the ideal wilderness is found in the American southwest.
Abbey’s most important work, Desert Solitaire, is a lovely piece about the southwest. However, his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, has the longest lasting legacy. In it he tells a somewhat novelized version of environmental monkeywrenching that was aimed at limiting development and growth in the southwest. It is this growth, Abbey argues, that is the root of all of the environmental problems in the region. While he is correct about his critique of overdevelopment, his other pieces on immigration written about the same time as The Monkey Wrench Gang, tainted his reputation considerably. More than 25 years after his death, Abbey remains a controversial figure.
Of course he is still a hero to many.
Prentiss, in his writings, comes off as an intellectual fan boy in search of nuggets of information about Abbey that will give meaning to his life. He tells us that he is unhappy living and working as a professor in Michigan and is only comfortable in the mountains of the west. He finds comfort in nature and began the quest to find Abbey’s grave as a way to make sense of his own life choices as a writer, environmentalist, professor, and activist. He visits key points in Abbey’s life and eventually takes us on a two-day search for Abbey’s grave. It would be easy to critique Prentiss as a self-absorbed neo-romantic who sees himself in many of Abbey’s former haunts. But I think that this may be too easy of a critique—it is one that other reviewers have explored. I think that Prentiss’ writing is more of a reflection of our modern era of selfies and entitlement, as well as on delayed male maturity, than it is on Prentiss himself. Who would go to search for a very small grave in an area with tens of thousands of acres for a weekend? Someone who thinks they can undertake a major undertaking by flying in and renting a jeep for the weekend. We find Prentiss sweating under the sun and learn of his dehydration for the vast amount of time (it was a few hours) he is away from his jeep full of water in the same place that immigrants make the trek from Mexico to the United States for days carrying gallons of water on their backs. We are in an entitled age in which trendy green small homes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and one can find Abbey’s grave in the middle of a vast desert in a weekend.
I don’t want to take this critique of the book too far. I like this book for three main reasons. First, I found the focus on friendship moving. Many of us are lucky enough to have good friends who understand us in special ways. Abbey had such friends and Prentiss is wise to juxtapose his friendship with his environmentalist buddy Haus within the text to highlight this subtly in comparative prose. Haus is Prentiss’ constant companion in person or in thought. Their actions together within the last pages of the book are those of individuals who relate to each other as mysteriously as coyotes communicate in a pack.
The second reason that I found this book especially worthwhile is that it provides a new series of interviews with some of the main characters in Abbey’s life. We see a fresh look at the man twenty-five years after his death. His friends have had time to reflect. The interviews are deftly managed. The questions are unexpected. And as a result, we have an updated look at a man who has disappeared into legend.
The third reason I enjoyed this book is that Prentiss does not just give us the Abbey of the American West. Certainly his most important writing is about the west. But Abbey was a child of the east. He was born in rural Pennsylvania and lived for some time in the New York metro area. Prentiss walks the streets where he lived in all phases of his life. We learn Abbey’s complex personal geography. While he is intimately linked to the wilderness, for much of his life he was either an urbanite or a suburbanite (or at least an exurbanite) living on the fringes of the cities he critiqued. Most have a hard time picturing the great environmentalist John Muir earning a pleasant living on a fruit ranch in northern California. But he did. Likewise, it is hard to imagine Abbey in the suburbs.
The affectionate forays into Abbey’s life, woven into Prentiss’ journey to find the great writer’s grave, create a unique primer on Abbey for those who are unfamiliar with the importance of his work.